Man’s best friend goes to school

Published 10:11 pm Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Special-needs students give some special attention to a therapy dog at Rivers Bend Academy Tuesday. The dog is one of several that Suffolk Humane volunteers bring to the private day school on a regular basis.

Three-legged “Bella” wriggles into the Rivers Bend Academy classroom, flops over and is met with more belly rubs than the average pooch could stand.

Cat Kaisler adopted the pit bull mix, a neglect case, in June 2010 after Newport News animal control officers found her with a broken and infected leg.

But Bella’s positive reception among students diagnosed with a variety of disorders, including autism, hasn’t always been unanimous.

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“There’s one child in particular in this classroom … when we first came, in he stayed on the other side of the room and screamed,” Kaisler said.

Four months later, “now he’s asking me questions, he’s getting interactive with us.”

Teaching tolerance of animals is an important part of the partnership between Suffolk Humane Society and Rivers Bend Academy, in which Bella and Kaisler are among eight dogs and seven owners making regular classroom visits, said Wendy Fitch, director of the private day school.

“Families who would never have adopted a pet have been able to,” because the children learn to tolerate and interact with animals, she said.

The program has been so effective at making the students comfortable around animals that some Rivers Bend students now work as volunteers with the Isle of Wight County animal shelter, Fitch said.

“The other big thing is, the presence of the dogs acts as a reinforcement. If there’s a test we want them to take, they will do it just to have time with the dogs.”

A charismatic dog in the classroom also gives the kids a common interest, Fitch said, encouraging them to communicate with each other.

Another dog-owner duo at Rivers Bend Tuesday was “Dallas,” another pit, and Ray Cross.

Cross adopted Dallas at a Suffolk Humane/Suffolk Animal Control adopt-a-thon four years ago.

“You are putting a smile on the children’s faces,” Cross said of his classroom visits with Dallas, who was also the center of attention at the academy Tuesday.

“You start rubbing him, he’ll be your friend forever,” Cross told the children. “Always go up with one hand open. Let him sniff it, and then you can rub him.”

Cross told the children that Dallas loves to play football and hide-and-seek. “Wait a minute,” one child replied. “Dogs can’t play football!”

Undaunted, Cross continued, “He sleeps with me and the wife at night. He gets in between us with his head on the pillow just like I do. I have woken up with my wife under the bed and he’s kind of pushed her off.”

Suffolk Humane volunteer Ginger Owen started the visits to Rivers Bend with her 9-year-old Bernese mountain dog “Ella.”

“The dogs are particularly special, because they have to deal with lots of distractions,” Suffolk Humane spokeswoman Kay Hurley said.

It generally takes eight weekly training sessions for a dog to be certified by Therapy Dogs International.